Ted Koppel’s China Series Gets Skewered By NYT

Wednesday, July 9, 2008 7:44
Posted in category Uncategorized

I am not sure if anyone out there has seen the recent Ted Koppel series on China, but Neil Genzlinger had this to say:

Ted Koppel doesn’t actually cover much geographic ground in “The People’s Republic of Capitalism,” his four-part look at change in China on the Discovery Channel, but he seems a bit like a traveler who has lost his Fodor’s


Yet that doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer. The transformation of China, at least in terms of consumerism, into a super-size United States has already been noted and thoroughly commented on, so this effort, an installment of the “Koppel on Discovery” series, wasn’t destined to be full of fresh insights anyway.


If anyone out there has seen it, and has spent time in China, please chime in. To be fair to Ted, I did my best to see if Neil was based in China or the US to see where his perspective was coming from, and it appears he is US based. so, I would be interested in hearing the opinion of others who have seen it and have some China experience.

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18 Responses to “Ted Koppel’s China Series Gets Skewered By NYT”

  1. Nrupesh says:

    July 9th, 2008 at 11:45 am

    This series ( The first episode that I got hold , after 4 days I can post my view on the complete series ) has absolutely nothing to offer to anyone who has spent even a year doing business in China and going around… Its really fun to see him surprised at some small stuff that most of us living here don’t even give a second thought about.

    In my opinion, only people who have spent atleast last 4-5 yrs here should be allowed to make a documentary on development of China otherwise it just ends up being a commercial piece of video instead of offering any real insight.

  2. Bobby Brill says:

    July 10th, 2008 at 12:15 am

    I have to agree with Nrupesh but defend the producers of the piece a bit. Yes – there are no great revelations in the piece ESPECIALLY to anyone who has lived here, done business here (or any outsourcing for that matter) or reported on China. Another good example is Thomas L. Friedman’s book – the golly gee wow is not there for the realtively small percentage of us who live/work in China. Those of us in media forget that not everyone is as cool and plugged in as we think we are.

    I worked on a TV documentary about the same premise 4 years ago that was shot in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangdong and Xinjiang over a month period. When you do it “officially” you have at least one government official tethered to you if not more. The price you pay for doing media in full view in China. You have to do a number of approved interviews to let them allow you do you what you want. Also it is often harder to find foreigners to interview who will be honest with you and get you “good TV”. Plus China is so huge and things change so fast that by the time you go back to edit for broadcast some things have changed to point the what you shot is dead.

    It is a nice piece and well produced – but, unfortunately, nothing groundbreaking. Sadly, the piece I worked on would garner the same criticism – China is a tough assignment.

  3. Rich says:

    July 10th, 2008 at 1:07 am

    Nrupesh – it is showing on China based Discovery? Sounds like you hold the same opinion as the NYT.

    Bobby – No doubt shooting is difficult in China, and thanks for giving us a bit of context. One of the best groups I have seen is Current TV and Journeyman pictures. I think they are more along the lines of citizen reporting, and I am not sure if they have the nanny, but overall the reports are quite good.

    Thanks for your comments. Going to see if anyone has Google videoed them yet!


  4. Nrupesh says:

    July 10th, 2008 at 1:22 am

    “the relatively small percentage of us who live/work in China.” , The percentage just got a whole lot smaller last couple of months…

    Agreed that it is almost impossible to make a movie that shows the ‘real’ china with honest interviews of foreigners living here , but at the same time a documentary should cover atleast a few big cities ( Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing etc ) instead of focusing on ChongQing mostly ( Haven’t seen the last 3 parts yet so I might be wrong, but Ted said on his interview on Conan O’Brien that he had focused only on ChongQing )

  5. Nrupesh says:

    July 10th, 2008 at 2:13 am

    Rich – I watched them online on one of the tv softwares which allows you to watch almost all global channels via net ( and live streams ).

    Google for ‘sopcast’ ‘tvuplayer’ ‘tvants’ , or go to http://allp2ptv.org/download.htm for a list of all these players … ironically enough most of them are made by Chinese developers lol.

  6. IR says:

    July 10th, 2008 at 10:47 am

    My thoughts on seceral of the comments above:
    1. You don’t have to “cover much geographical ground” to make a decent story that will help a mass audience understand a subject better? So long as the place chosen is representative.
    2. China’s transformation has been “noted and commented on” – but the Koppel programme is TV. Getting a complex story to work on TV – genuine news based TV, not staged interviews – is a great challenge, especially in China. And along the way, good producers will add more to the current debate.
    3. Regarding the posting about the “commercial piece of video”, my guess is that the Koppel programme is not aimed at enlightening those in the know – it’s for the majority of people who are misinformed about China or have only a smattering of understanding that was gleaned from 2 minutes evening news stories.
    4. From the Discovery website, Koppel and his team had unfettered access in Chongqing. They had an agreement where they could go about their work without minders – a free rein. Hence being able to shoot – in quality, not with hidden cameras – places like hostess bars.
    I would think that the authorities kept tracks of what they were doing much of the time. But not all the time, judging by some of the subjects.
    5. Should Koppel have focused on other cities as well ? If he had, then his time on the ground on each city would have been thin. First, check out the main thrust of the programme. Then check to see if the chosen city is representative. If so, if it can deliver the rich, poor, urban, rural, etc etc, then why not devote the entire production time to getting used to that city. Making relationships, gaining trust, travelling around and getting to know the place. To reports from two, three or four cities would likley deliver a travelogue – where the characters are not fully developed. Also, Koppel seems to have focused on local people rather than relying on English speaking foreigners – that’s a plus.
    6. As for “only people who have lived 4/5 years here” should be making a documentary on China’s development…why? If the production stands up to serious scrutiny, what’s the problem. Should only people who have lived in the Antarctic for 4/5 years make a doc on penguins ? According to the Discovery website, one of the producers is a seasoned TV journalist and has lived in Chongqing for 4 years.
    Interesting comments – it’s good to talk !

  7. pet mao says:

    July 10th, 2008 at 12:26 pm

    Saw Koppel interview with Charlie Rose last night (7/9/08) on KQED (pbs in SF) and snatches of his documentary on China. Surprised to hear his comment that Chungking was little known. The city is actually the Capitol of China during last few years of WW2, Chiang Kai Shek based his operation there during the time. It is well known. Not sure if I’ll get to watch Koppel’s documentury on “Discoverey” channel since I don’t subscribe to any Cables. Hopefully it’ll air on PBS or come out in DVD.

  8. IR says:

    July 10th, 2008 at 10:35 pm

    Yes, those with a perspective of history or trade with China would know more or even a lot about Chongqing.
    But my guess is that most Europeans or Americans have never heard of Chongqing.
    Those who recognise the name, probably don’t know where it is.
    I also think that most Euopeans or Americans could not name the Chinese Prime Minister and,l these days, few would know who Zhou Enlai is.
    Sad, isn’t it ? But reality (in my opinion).

  9. IR says:

    July 11th, 2008 at 1:42 am

    I also understand that shooting on the Koppel project began in October and ran until afer the Chinese New Year. Not continuous, but with over 2 months of actual filming with 2 crews and lots of producer leg work before, between and beyond. Hence, Koppel was able to show the people over a perioid of time – follow their stories over a half year. Not just turn up for a quick sequence and a few soundbites.
    Looking forward to more comments once you’ve been able to absorb the complete series.

  10. herb says:

    July 12th, 2008 at 7:04 am

    This program was absolutely filmed for the average person, not for a China scholar! It is obviously tied in to the curiosity generated by the olympics, and should be judged on those criteria.
    Considering the time constraints (actual programming time is about 3 hours), I think he has done a marvelous job of it.

  11. India says:

    July 12th, 2008 at 9:31 pm

    There has been too much attention paid to China! Enough! Divert some to India which would be more appreciated. After all, one of India’s government
    officials has written a book and demanded the world call the 21st century “India’s Century”!

  12. Bobby Brill says:

    July 12th, 2008 at 11:05 pm

    I think Chongqing was a good choice to focus on – you will not get the “real China” in the major cities. Shanghai is overly media savy and again from a producing stand point everything there comes with a “fee”. Beijing is obvious for its political center but that comes with heavy scrutiny for what you are doing. Shenzhen is a manufactured city – no history. Guangzhou (which I lived in for two years) is hard to navigate because no one speaks Mandarin, mainly Cantonese, and is so different to everywhere else in China (something you get stuck staying about every province). Chongqing is far enough away to draw locals from all over China due to its industries and get away from heavy media saturated cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong.

    Remember you don’t do “common everyman” stories is Los Angeles or New York – it does not apply, they aren’t there.

    I agree Current TV is a great showcase as well as VBS.TV – the video site to Vice Magazine. More irreverent for sure – but far more interesting – well worth checking out.

  13. Victor T says:

    July 18th, 2008 at 4:17 am

    USA will be to China, as what the UK is to the USA today. It has happened before, it will happen again.

    The sheer will (or spending power) of the People in China will eventually make the US succumb to 2nd place in the world. Happened to the UK, will happen to the US, and…I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens to China 100-200 years later.

  14. Steve says:

    August 15th, 2008 at 6:58 pm

    As an American that never been to China, these series absolutely very useful and insightful. Do you know how many American that has been to China before? I absolutely sure Koppel China series will be very insightful to average American. I might not be very useful for journalist that has been long into China.

  15. Cockus Monglus says:

    August 26th, 2008 at 8:52 pm

    guys let’s not forget the fact that
    1. Ted’s job as a journalist isto inform the masses, yes that includes imbiciles and idiots too
    2. He’s now a journalist for the Discovery Channel, meaning as said before he really has a big audience to entertain and inform, many who have been misinformed or just not informed about China.
    3. since he has to entertain and inform informal and formal, or unkown audiences he HAS TO numb down his documentary, meaning it can’t be anything too groundbreaking or basic.
    4. Also he never said this was going to be a full head on expose, meaning we should assume it’s just a lick and a glimpse at what china is.

  16. Rich says:

    August 26th, 2008 at 9:03 pm


    I recently started a second thread on this following my viewing of the videos. to be honest, I think Ted did a good job of highlighting some new stuff – some important – through the series.

    It wasn’t hard hitting, but I think it asks some tough questions for and of those watching the program… and that is where I give him credit. I wish he had spent more time on less issues, but he did have keep it at high elevations.


  17. janet k says:

    August 31st, 2008 at 10:59 pm

    I found Koppel’s report to be very interesting and informative. I’d been living/working in Chongqing for a couple years and found he’d managed to give a good portrayal, though not groundbreaking. I found another documentary on the same place. very entertaining but manages to tell the same story


  18. uuzip says:

    March 7th, 2009 at 10:39 am

    I think for someone who is expert on China and its culture and economics, the show may be offer any fresh info, but for the 99% of people who know very little about China both then and now, the show will be an eye openers for them for sure.